07 April 2017

Collegiality, Serendipity, and Altruism in Graduate School

Names removed to protect the innocent.
(amazing Photoshoppery by a grad in our program)
This past Monday, I participated in a roundtable on collegiality (or, as the organizer liked to say, "colleaguing") organized by the Professional Development Committee of my old graduate program. There were four of us: two current graduate students and two former graduate students (me still physically at the department, the other now junior tenure-track faculty and appearing via videolink).

I spoke on the necessity of developing your teaching, and specifically, developing your writing. My Ph.D. is in Victorian literature, but like many graduate students, much of my teaching was in writing. There's definitely a strain of literature graduate student who dismisses writing as not really counting, but now that I've spent three years on the academic job market, I see even more clearly how short-sighted that approach is. If you're a graduate student at an R1 university, all the faculty you see are only teaching literature courses, but that's not the reality at smaller teaching-focuses schools, which are the kinds of schools where graduates from mid-ranked public school programs like mine get jobs. Most of my friends with tenure-track literature jobs are still teaching at least one writing course per semester.

When you interview for that kind of job, they want you to speak thoughtfully and intelligently about the teaching of writing. They don't expect you (in my experience) to be all up on the latest composition scholarship, they just want you to have a real investment and commitment to the teaching of writing. You can get that, I think, by taking on administrative roles as a graduate student (I was Assistant Director of Freshman English for over two years as a graduate student), but you don't have to go that far: you can work for orientations or what have you.

Time to redeploy this old clip art again.
It's also good to broaden your teaching within writing. When I was on the market last year, I was up for a job that involved teaching a "basic writing" course (here at my school we call it "Introduction to Academic Writing," but it's basically a preparatory course for students with low SAT verbal or TOEFL scores, that's a prereq for the main academic writing requirement). They asked me how I would teach such a course, they evinced skepticism as to my approach, and because I had never actually taught the course, only talked to my program director about how to do it, I didn't have a convincing defense.

So when I didn't get that (or any) job and ended up adjuncting here, I asked to teach Introduction to Academic Writing so I could answer that question better. I'd avoided it, I guess honestly because it has a sort of stigma, but I actually liked it better than our usual academic writing course in some regards. And when I had a campus interview this year and the dean asked me about teaching that course, he pointed out how enthusiastic I sounded about teaching it.

This didn't come up in my remarks on Monday, but talking to a graduate student about some of these issues earlier that day, she complained that a lot of people's success in academia seemed to be based on "serendipity": happening to have worked at a part-time job with some connection to a skill valued by a proseminar, happening to have organized something a potential employer is seeking someone to organize, happening to have graduated from a program with a philosophy of writing that aligns with another university's.

And she's kind of right. The way many people get hired seems very lucky. To a degree, it even makes sense: most everyone who graduates with a Ph.D. is very qualified. But for me, the serendipity of these alignments only heightens the need to get involved in something when you're in graduate school: if you don't do anything other than the things everyone does, you don't have anything that can spark one of those serendipitous connections. So on the one hand, it's very often a fluke what makes you stand out from the pack, but on the other hand, you can increase the odds of a fluke.

Rude grad students go on to be rude professors.
Something else that I didn't say, but only occurred to me afterwards: as I have been seriously job-searching for two years now, my comments were kind of mercenary, focusing on the practical outcomes of the work for your future career prospects. But even though I really do believe it can help you out on the job market, that shouldn't be the whole of your reasoning. This kind of outside academic work is best approached with enthusiasm, caring, thoughtfulness, engagement, and genuine collegiality. I have served on committees (I have ran committees) where it became clear that people I thought were good colleagues were only out for number one, and only signed up because they thought it was an easy paycheck for a nice line on the good old c.v. And now I never want to work with those people ever again.

This stuff can help you professionally, but if you want to be collegial, it can never be your primary reason for doing something-- then you're just a selfish ass.


  1. Hi Steve,

    From someone who teaches at the community college level, I've experienced departments that have eschewed collegiality--at least in its more honest form where it is not a means to an end--and other departments that seem to thrive on the exchange of ideas (and, of course, along with that comes folks reading your mail and getting up in your business). The latter rather than the former strikes me as the more enviable place to be--I love it when colleagues question me (as well as help me) and challenge me in my teaching instead of guarding their own prospects. Of course, I'm not saying that those of us in the more collegiate setting weren't signing up for programs or workshops to further our professional development and to also pad our resumes/CVs; however, there always seemed to be an understanding that working together to positively affect students' lives was more important than working on our singular and far more personal projects. Perhaps what I'm working at here is that simply focusing on working to get along with your colleagues misses the point --at least it does from an altruistic perspective. It's odd that I'm looking all the way back to an earlier Liberal Humanist perspective championed by folks like Matthew Arnold. I suppose as someone who trucks with the Victorians you probably know where I am going here.It's odd because as scholars and theorists we've supposedly shed that antiquated skin some time ago, but Arnold's view, which is worth mining in these bloodless days, was that of finding and pursuing the "moral social passion for doing good" where
    the culture (of teaching, of higher education, etc) should be concerned with "Not a having and a resting, but a growing and a becoming." Arnold believed that he was not a free agent, but was instead a citizen who was busy pursuing intellectual freedom; he realized that this citizen was also connected to a larger social framework that depended on the individual citizen to advance the cause of social justice ( a term worth dissecting especially where it involves equity in the classroom). Of course, it's easy for me--someone who is fascinated by the postmodern turn toward the ironic--to find fault with people like Arnold because such idealism can seem laughable today, but there is another part of me that longs for his sense of connection to a purpose larger than mere career advancement. Ok, it's getting late, but that's my two cents.

    1. Hi Matt, thanks for reading and commenting!

      I agree that "simply focusing on working to get along with your colleagues misses the point --at least it does from an altruistic perspective," but given the roundtable was on collegiality, that was the angle I took. Definitely it's part of it, though; no one wants to be the one guy who actually does care and therefore gets saddled with all the work, so pitching in is a good way to be a colleague. But there are obviously other reasons to participate; the service section of my C.V. is quite long, and that's because I believed in a lot of these causes!

      Matthew Arnold has one my favorite descriptions of academic writing: "free play of the mind upon all subjects." I try to keep that in mind in both my own writing and in my teaching.